< Lisa Teasely, a reader at Amazon, described Majd’s book so well when she wrote:
There is a calm centeredness to THE AYATOLLAH BEGS TO DIFFER… I highly recommend Hooman Majd’s book for readers who prefer their political and cultural literature written with a masterful sense of balance and wisdom, rather than justification, finger-pointing, and reactionary doctrine.
Precisely. I would just add that this book is also full of wit. Majd is a storyteller – and his stories lead us along Iranian streets, into homes and offices, taking us for a very personal tour that transcends all the polemics about Iran and lets us meet the people who live there, the powerful and not, on their own terms.
For, as he points out at the beginning of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ:
If we cannot understand the depth of feeling in the Muslim world toward Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islam as a political force, then we will be doomed to failure in every encounter we have with that world. True, the secular and intellectual classes we most come into contact with from that world are much like us, and often they would like us to believe that their countrymen would like to be too, but they makeup a small percentage of the Muslim population on the planet and spend as little time with those who are in the majority of their countries as we do. But Iran and its Islamic society (or even Islamic democracy) are the adversarial powers we have to face in the coming years, and to understand Iran, we have to understand Iranians.
An Iranian who was raised in the US and lives in New York, a secularist who is deeply drawn to the rituals of Ashura (and tips us off that those chains do “hurt!”), a relative of former president Khatami who understands and explains the appeal of current president Ahmadinejad, Majd does not so much bridge Western and Iranian culture for his readers as invite us into the heart of his homeland.
The tales which Majd tells charm as well as inform. His view shifts from parties amongst the westernized elites to the beliefs and patriotism of the working class. His ability to view Iran from both perspectives is one we rarely have a chance to encounter – and Majd is a gifted guide who honors the diversity of Iranians as well as the unifying cultural foundations of Iran.
And central to those foundations are the beliefs of Shia Islam. It is hard for Americans, with so little exposure to Islamic thought and belief, even less to Shia belief, to understand how deeply the loss of Iman Hussein 1400 years ago still colors the emotional core of believers and how it calls to Iranians as a framework for living and being in the wider world today. One of the gifts of this book is the author’s ability to introduce those beliefs – and the pull they have for believers – with respect and honor but also with a very entertaining curiosity.
In the continual American portrayals of Iran as ultimate enemy, it’s often hard to remember that the Iranian government is democratically elected – and Majd’s book makes it quite clear that democracy has deep popular roots in Iran. But as former president Khatami says in one of their meetings, it is not necessarily “our” democracy:
“Democracy in the West is shaped by their culture, by their history and in Iran we have our own culture and history, and our democracy will be shaped in accordance with our culture.”
Democracy means the government is chosen by the people and they have the power to change it if they are unhappy, but Islam is one of the foundations of our culture, and it will influence our democracy. Of course Islam must adjust to democracy as well.”
Our continual expectation – and often demand – that other nations and peoples do it our way, is clearly not going to work if we wish to establish a sustainable relationship with Iran. As Majd points out:
The Iranian revolution of 1979 was a clear rejection of non-Iranian political concepts, and although rage and animosity toward the United States in its aftermath were consequences of this, it was hardly understood that the real fear of Iranians at the time was that the United States, the most powerful country in the world, would simply not allow a political system to develop that didn’t mirror its own. What the Iranians were saying, in effect, was: “Leave us alone, and if you don’t, we’ll find ways to make your life miserable.” Almost thirty years later, the Iranians, although seemingly more “moderate” in the eyes of the West, are still saying the same thing.
The more we understand about Iranians – and their wish to do it their way, the more we will be able to forge a relationship that leads away from the disastrous clashes of recent years. Hooman Majd has given us a very valuable guide to doing just that. This is a book that deserves attention from all of us who wish to understand our world and find better ways to live within it.